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Agustin De Mello Calls 'Whiz Kid' Son His Greatest Creation; Some Say That's Precisely the Problem

September 27, 1988|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Unshaven and disheveled, Agustin Eastwood De Mello sat slumped on a kitchen chair beside his shattered rear door, waiting for a call from his son.

Two days earlier, around 6 in the morning, eight Santa Cruz police officers in flak jackets had kicked in the door and charged into the kitchen.

De Mello was strapped to a gurney and taken by ambulance to the local psychiatric ward for observation.

Eleven-year old Adragon, the celebrated "whiz kid" who graduated in June from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in mathematics, was placed in protective custody, the tail on his hamster pajamas flopping as he walked out the door.

Heads the Local News

Here in Northern California, the De Mello story leads the headlines and broadcasts. Yet, despite the details of each new twist--the police seizure of 10 guns, videotapes and Adragon's physics, astronomy and math assignments; De Mello's release from the psych ward, and his subsequent arrest on felony child endangerment charges; last Thursday's hearing, postponed till this week, to determine where Adragon should live--the De Mello story remains largely a mystery.

To many of De Mello's supporters, it's an absurdist drama about an extraordinarily close and extraordinarily intelligent father and son doomed to suffer the intolerance of a pathetically ordinary culture.

To the police and others, it's a potential horror story about the gourmet baby trend turned pathological, a story in which authorities headed off an unstable Svengali before he could destroy himself, or the people he thinks impeded his son's rush to intellectual glory, or the mother who is fighting for custody of the child, or the boy he believes may well be "the most intelligent child so far found in this world."

And in this quintessentially mellow Northern California refuge, where people pride themselves on being smart enough to have fled the fast lane to luxuriate in life, the De Mello battle is also about the definition of happiness.

Until last week, the one person whose life seemed an open book was Adragon ("A.D." to his friends). Cameras were there when he entered Cabrillo junior college at age 8, when he graduated with highest honors at 10, when he condensed the last two years of university classes into one to become the youngest university graduate in American history, and when his father announced that the boy, whose stated goal is to win a Nobel prize by 16, might have to go to the Soviet Union because American universities were unwilling to accept him into a graduate program.

But now Adragon (so-named because he was born in the Chinese year of the dragon) is being held incommunicado by Santa Cruz Child Protective Services, and the agency "will make absolutely no comment" on the case.

Cathy Gunn, Adragon's 36-year old mother, is far less visible. A Silicon Valley technical writer, she is known publicly only by what she said to a police investigator, as reported in the thick affidavit filed to justify the search warrant for De Mello's house. In that, she told investigators that her son believed De Mello was "losing it," that the boy and his father had made a "suicide pact," and that De Mello had made a thinly veiled threat of violence.

When she spoke to The Times on Friday in an exclusive interview, she remained extremely cautious, opting not to fill in many of the holes that riddle the public's picture of the estranged family's past.

But it is Agustin De Mello who remains the most elusive in the family. Never reluctant to tell the media that his son at 7 weeks looked up and said "hello," that the boy as an infant pondered the model solar system hung above his crib, or that Adragon at age 3 expressed the scientific theory "electric chemicals make boys," the self-described genius and anarchist is also quick to deny all of Gunn's accusations. Yet he is irritated by questions concerning his own life.

"All documents relating to my early background are not correct," he said when told that records show he was born in Massachusetts in 1929. "I can't go into it more than that. . . ."

The threads of De Mello's life that do reveal themselves can be woven into an offbeat drama, in which the hero careens through life, dog sledding on the Hudson Bay, breaking bricks on a Johnny Carson show, penning romantic poems about immortality, and wailing through New York's Greenwich Village on a motorcycle with hipster Wavy Gravy hanging on behind.

Certain motifs resonate in the way Agustin and his son lived. In the cluttered pink frame house that De Mello rents from his next-door neighbor, the living room, whose curtains are almost always drawn now, is strewn with leaning towers of physics books, a wading pool that housed Adragon's two box turtles (impounded by the SPCA after the search), a telescope and a baby grand piano heaped with litter, and a bust of Beethoven.

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